Dallas — GOBSMACKED!, the beatbox musical, had its Texas premiere Tuesday night at the Majestic Theatre as part of the Off-Broadway on Flora series of the AT&T Performing Arts Center. The audience, a heady blend of business suits and watch caps, was treated to a relentlessly energetic tour through the history of rock as performed by voice, lips and throat of its a cappella cast, unaccompanied by any musical instrument. It is unlikely that any of them had seen its like before.
When I talked with show creator and Executive Producer Nic Doodson, he promised that that Gobsmacked! would be a unique and energetic mixture of story, opera and pantomime. He was spot-on. The two act musical drives across the stage with amazing power, energized by the all-out singing of its six talented singers and the uncanny virtuosity of its human rhythm machine, world champion beatboxer Ball-Zee.
But unique does not always equal coherent or integrated. Despite the technical brilliance of all the performances, the play is problematic as a whole. The two acts stand in contrast not only due to their style and substance, but also by their degree of polish and execution. Unlike many theatrical experiences—in which a play or musical seems to sag as it reels to the end—in Gobsmacked! it is the second act that shines the most and shows the enormous potential of the show’s design and concept.
The first act, according to Mr. Doodson, is meant to introduce the various characters, six unnamed singing performers brought together under the sometimes mysterious direction of The Engineer. Their characters range from prom nerd ingénues (poodle-skirted Monika Sik-Holm as The Girl) to heartbroken Romeos (Nick Hayes crooning his soul out as “The Man”). From the very first song we are introduced to what appear to be a variety of romantic triangles and betrayals, crushes and seductions. But there is no spoken dialogue and the narrative is entirely derived from the songs. Despite the deft characterizations that the entire cast applies to their singing, it is difficult to find definition in any of the behind-the-scenes interactions or to establish anything about the characters except their vocal styles and ranges.
Ball-Zee (“The Engineer”) is presented as an almost supernatural controller of the performers. He can slow them or speed them with a gesture or most often with a sound effect from his cultured voice box. He jumpstarts the singers in the same way he revs up the sound system at the beginning of the show. He can freeze them mid-dance. And at one point he can even take away and give back a life.
The result of all these machinations is a somewhat incoherent mix of driving performance and shock switches reminiscent of a dance mix. We get portions of abundant numbers of songs in both sampling and medleys—there is one very effective vignette in which each of the groups takes turns selecting and singing as a pantomimed MP3 player. But we are seldom given enough continuous and complete arrangements.
When we do get a full performance for the performers to sink their teeth into, such as the James Brown/Alicia Keys mash-up “It’s a Man’s World/Fallin’” sung by the powerful Emilie Louise Israel (as “The Woman”) or Marcus Collins’ (as “The Chap”) fine rendition of Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” we finally get to hear and appreciate the fine musicality and skilled vocals of the ensemble. The other works are clever and skillful, but there are many times when it feels that the technical contrivances of the show get in the way of the all-important singing.
The second act, established as the performance that Ball-Zee has engineered, is a much more coherent unit. We are finally allowed to revel in the wonderful artistry of the cast as individual singers and as a united group. From the pop/camp opening “Mr. Fahrenheit” and then the very lyrical rendition of the Beatles’ “She Loves You” to an exquisite rendition of the song “Bulletproof” performed on a pantomime subway train with Joanne Evans (“The Diva”) as featured soloist, the group seems to find its blend and its unity. In this half of the show, even a medley like the breathtaking combination of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” is flowing and seamless, avoiding the disjointed quality of the rapid-fire scatterings of the first act.
For variety, this act features a brilliant and witty beatbox solo tour de force by Ball-Zee which stands out as one of the high points and unique moments of the show. If we couldn’t appreciate the amazing skill and wit of the beatboxer during the rest of the pieces, it is firmly on evidence here. That scene is followed by a curious and effective rhythm duet between Ball-Zee and bass (and associate beatboxer) Ed Scott (“The Boy”) which surprisingly turns into Prince’s “Kiss.” By the time the show reaches its acme with an a cappella tour of the history of pop, a return to sampling but by now with the vocal chops of the entire group well established, the performance is fully victorious over the technique, and the audience is sorry to see the end.
Gobsmacked! is an enormously fun and energetic show. It is a delight for anyone (like myself) who loves a cappella and beatboxing, and an eye-opener for the uninitiated. On Tuesday night, the audience left the theater stomping and singing (helped out the door by the familiar “Hey Jude” sung as an encore) and uplifted. But the show could be even more compelling if the singing and the artistry were brought forward earlier while maintaining the wondrous technical skill that sets the show and the whole genre apart.